Govt. urged to clarify on Hyped ‘Desi Bt’ Cotton Seeds of (CICR) – VJAS

Nagpur- Dated 1ST January 2012

Vidarbha cotton farmers urged India’s Govt. to come clean on recent reported controversy of Hyped ‘Desi Bt’ Cotton Seeds having developed its own by Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) and Agriculture universities having spent hundred of crores over so called research which has put ICAR in Bt cotton (genetically modified) variety has taken an embarrassing turn with an RTI inquiry by two scientists revealing how the University of Agriculture Sciences (UAS) at Dharwad went ahead brushing aside all precautions to produce an indigenous variety working on a gene originally patented by Monsanto, Kishor Tiwari of Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, a farmers’ advocacy group who are documenting Bt.cotton crop failure and farmers suicides in vidarbha since 2005 informed in a press release today.

“It is true that in 2009, the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) had decided to stop the sale of Bikaneri Narma Bt Cotton seed marketed state owned seed corporation MAHABEEJ as an “completely indigenous Bt variety”,having failed to give any positive result . Bikaneri Narma was released for farmers as BN Bt by Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) in 2009. It was reported by CICR Director Keshav Kranthi that DESI Bt.cotton seeds will be available for Rs 200 per 2 kg bag as against Rs 1150 per 450 gm bag of Monsanto’s Bt.cotton seed currently sold by national and multinational companies like Monsanto permitted sed companies like Mahyco, Rasi, Ankur and Nuziveedu. It was called an indigenous Bt “variety” as distinct from the Monsanto hybrid where farmers have to buy fresh seeds each season. Farmers could re-use BN Bt cotton seeds for many years but within year then ICAR’s DDG S K Dutta, having received pressure from Agriculture Ministry stopped commercial sale of Bn Bt in 2009, hence we want Govt. Clarification recent developments and reports which exposes CICR activities as illegal and misleading to fact that Bt. Gen. where officially purchased by ICAR from Monsanto followed by baseless claims and counter claims of CICR Director Keshav Kranthi are mush more humiliating and creating doubts about integrality of CICR’’ Tiwari added.

‘In June 2009 to there was questions raised by vidarbha cotton farmers over CICR Director Keshav Kranthi claims that DESI Bt.cotton seed of CICR is beneficial in drought-tolerant, non-irrigated areas and is also resistant to sucking pests like jassids and aphids and VJAS had urged Indian Govt. to take official stand over this ICAR activity as our experience with Monsanto’s Bt,cotton seed is too bad to believe in any more Desi Bt.cotton seed as GM technology is based on gene which only available in part of America then it is must for Indian Govt. to clarify on the claims of CICR ” Kishore Tiwari further added.

It is reported in June 2009 that the white elephant research institute of Indian council of agriculture search (ICAR) the Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) in Nagpur after ten long years of research punctuated with technical delays, is ready with 20,000 packets of desi Bt cotton seeds for distribution to farmers starting next month in four states. CICR also claimed that the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the apex body which clears GM crops, had okayed the Indian strain on May 2 last year this variety will enable farmers to replicate seeds for the next sowing and CICR’s DESI Bt.cotton variety needs very little fertiliser and pesticide, the farmer can save nearly 4,000 per acre in the first year (Rs 1,000 on seeds, Rs 2,000 on pesticides and Rs 1,000 on fertilisers) and about Rs 4,500 per acre every subsequent year since he won’t have to buy seeds. One seed of the desi Bt can produce up to 200-300 seeds which is not possible with Monsanto’s Bt,cotton seed more over Monsanto’s Bt.cotton seeds has been failed in vidarbha’s dry land cotton fields resulting more than 10,000 cotton farmers after Indian Govt. permitted commercial trials of Monsanto’s Bt.cotton seed hence there are serious issues involved in Rs.4000 crore Bt. Cotton Indian market and role of union agriculture ministry to create monopoly of US Gm seed Giant Monsanto, Tiwari said.

Scientific Fraud: Coalition demands immediate stopping of all public sector transgenic research & action against fraudulent scientists

INDIA’S “PUBLIC SECTOR INDIGENOUS GM COTTON” A SCIENTIFIC FRAUD:
 
Coalition for a GM-Free India demands immediate stopping of all public sector transgenic research and an independent enquiry and action against fraudulent scientists.
New Delhi, December 30, 2011: 2011 ends with a big blot to the Indian scientific community, as was the case in 2010 too. The much-hyped public sector Bt cotton lines (Bikaneri Narma Bt variety and NHH-44 Bt hybrid) touted as the “first indigenous public sector-bred GM crop in India” developed by Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur (CICR) and University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad (UAS) along with Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) is actually found to have a Bt gene originally patented by Monsanto. The ICAR had to withdraw the production of these ‘indigenous’ GM cotton seeds, based on this development. In effect the Indian biotechnologists, supported with enormous amounts of taxpayers’ money doing research on developing indigenous “biotechnology products” have misled the nation by passing off the Monsanto technology as their own, the Coalition for a GM-Free India stated. The Coalition demanded that the Government stop all transgenic research in the public sector immediately, setup a high-level independent inquiry into the current case as well as all other research projects. It also demanded that this issue be seen as an act of corruption and fraud and severe deterrent action be taken against all the institutions and scientists involved.
In India, the majority of transgenic products in the R&D pipeline are from public sector institutions. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s “network project on transgenics” had a budgetary provision of Rs 100 crores in the XI Plan.
The Bt cotton in question is the Bikaneri Narma (BN) Bt (variety) and the NHH-44 Bt (hybrid) expressing Bt Cry 1Ac protein. The developers CICR & UAS claimed that BN Bt carries the cry1Ac (Truncated and codon-modified) gene which ‘is very similar to the Cry 1Ac toxin expressed by MON 531 event developed by M/s Monsanto as well as event 1 of IIT, Kharagpur’, both of which are already under commercial cultivation. A CICR newsletter (Vol.24, No.2, Apr-June 2008) soon after the GEAC approval for transgenic BN Bt claimed that the development of this Bt cotton was initiated under the World-Bank-funded NATP from 2000 onwards. The Bt cry1AC gene in this instance was supposed to have been developed by the NRCPB of the IARI along with CICR and the transfer into popular cultivars is supposed to be taken up by UAS-Dharwad.
During deliberations in the GEAC about this, the members first gave approval for large-scale field trials (LSTs) during the GEAC meeting on April 2, 2008 and then in the next meeting on 2nd May 2008 reviewed the decision and gave approval for commercialization of BN Bt without conducting LSTs. The rationale was that since the seeds of BN Bt could be saved by farmers, a large scale field trial is tantamount to commercial release! However one year after its much publicized release BN Bt was withdrawn from the market without any explanation and no reports were made available about its performance till then. The same Bt construct was used to develop hybrid Bt cotton, namely NHH 44. YUVA and Hamara Beej Abhiyan, two constituents of the Coalition for a GM-Free India, brought out a report in 2010, on “Performance of CICR’s Bt Cotton in 2009 – a survey report” (available at http://indiagminfo.org/?page_id=238) which showed that BN Bt had failed to perform in farmers’ fields and the claims were belied. The worse thing was that there was no accountability fixed on anyone for this failure. In this report released in October 2010 itself, the Coalition demanded that ‘CICR come out in the open to state exactly what the problem is which made BN Bt seed supply vanish from the market exactly one season after its entry’ (pp.11).
Now it has come to light through an RTI that there is nothing indigenous about this Bt construct used by CICR & UAS and it has Monsanto’s cry1Ac gene. As per news media stories, the NARS appears to be defending this episode by explaining it away as “contamination”.  It is interesting to note that scientists who have rubbished “contamination” concerns expressed by civil society groups and others both for their environmental and IPR implications, are resorting to this phenomenon as their explanation now!
This raises a few pertinent questions:
·       How is it that the regulators who “rigorously” evaluated the product could not correctly identify the gene construct used? It puts to question the capabilities of the regulators.
·
·       Here it must also be highlighted that the then Director of CICR, Dr.Khadi was also a member of GEAC, a clear case of conflict of interest.
·
·       If it is indeed a case of contamination and the seed production had to be stopped given that Monsanto has proprietary rights over the genes and technology, what lies in store for all the other GM crops in the pipeline since contamination is inevitable?
·
·       Is it contamination or is it a scientific fraud related to incapability with regard to indigenous technology?
·
·       Who owns BN Bt cotton and NHH 44 Bt cotton now?  Have the Indian biotechnologists gratuitously gifted these to Monsanto through this action?
·
·       Is this all the country gets after big ticket investments on GM technology ignoring viable and safer mechanisms to deal with pests, diseases and climate threat?
This episode also highlights that the IPR issues related to transgenic technologies and the assumption by the Indian scientific community that they can use technologies patented by Monsanto and its ilk needs a serious re-think.
The Indian regulators, public sector scientists and NARS institutions are intent on promoting GM technologies to the exclusion of any other options despite serious evidence on the biosafety hazards connected with transgenics. In the light of this fiasco, claims about enormous indigenous capabilities (in this field) sound hollow. Such scientific frauds raise the question about how far the biotechnology scientists and regulators will go to force GM technologies into our agriculture and what motivates them. Why should the public be trusting these scientists who do not hestitate to resort to fraudulent practices?
Unfortunately this is not the first case of scientific fraud that the nation is witnessing. Last year witnessed the six premier Science Academies using plagiarized material to recommend and promote the release of Bt brinjal. Despite the report being dismissed by the then Minister for Environment & Forests as lacking scientific rigour, the Academies merely revised the section on Bt brinjal a little and put it back in the public domain claiming that they stand by their conclusions. There was no enquiry into the incident, no explanation about how it happened and no action taken against any entity. A clear demonstration of the contempt in which the scientific community holds the nation and the public, says the Coalition for a GM-Free India. It is interesting to note that Dr P Ananda Kumar of NRCPB is one of the lead ‘protagonists’ in these two scientific scandals. Further, Dr K C Bansal who coordinated the ICAR network project on transgenics till recently is now heading the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (custodian of plant genetic resources of the country!).
“The current UAS-D/CICR/IARI (NRCPB) fiasco proves once again that the Indian scientific community is not averse to scientific frauds and misleading the nation and the people. We do not need this technology force-fed to our farmers and consumers, we have sufficient workable and viable solutions for the agrarian crisis and demand that the government and public sector institutions work on these solutions rather than fraudulently promote GM technology”, said the Coalition.
It should also be remembered by certain political parties advocating public sector GM seeds that an inherently unsafe product does not become safer just because it comes from the public sector. In fact, accountability issues are murkier here, as has been seen in the case of the failure of CICR’s Bt cotton in the field, where large scale field trials have been waived off in favour of public sector GM research!
“All of this is ultimately experimentation happening at the expense of hapless Indian farmers and this is unconscionable. Severe deterrent action at the highest level is called for, in this case. We demand that a white paper be published on the investments made on this front so far by the government. Further, until all questions are answered including the actual technologies being used in the public sector transgenic R&D, IPR issues, future contamination possibilities etc., all funding to public sector transgenic projects should be immediately stopped. These scarce and valuable resources should be utilised for taking proven, safe, farmer-controlled technologies to the farmers”, demanded the Coalition.
For more information, contact:
  1. Dr G V Ramanjaneyulu: 09000699702; ramoo.csa@gmail.com
  2. Kavitha Kuruganti: 09393001550; kavitha.kuruganti@gmail.com

India’s dream of low-cost indigenous Bt cotton ends

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/215376/indias-dream-low-cost-indigenous.html
———Kalyan Ray, New Delhi, Dec 29, DHNS:

Commercialisation of homegrown strain stopped after contamination
India’s dream of having a low-cost Bt-cotton from the public sector has come to a screeching halt with the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) closing the doors on Bikaneri Nerma – the first indigenous Bt cotton.

It  was found that commercial seeds of the home grown strain developed at the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) in Dharwad were contaminated with Monsanto’s proprietary Bt gene instead of the domestic one.

“This is end of the road for Bikaneri Nerma. We will develop new better quality material. Bikaneri Nerma is now a closed chapter for ICAR,” Swapan Datta, deputy director general in charge of crop science at ICAR told Deccan Herald.

Even though Bt cotton in India has turned out to be a success story with as many as 35 companies selling 780 bt cotton hybrids, all of them are private firms, which sell expensive seeds costing Rs 930 for every 450 gm packet of seeds.

Bikaneri Nerma, on the other hand, was a low-cost option with a price tag of Rs 200 for 2 kg and had the potential to ch a nge the landscape completely. “It is a sinking feeling, combined with anger and anguish. We have given the private industry a million reasons to rejoice,” said an ICAR scientist who did not wish to be identified.

While ICAR stopped commercialisation of the first and only home-grown Bt cotton following its own investigation, the Karnataka government recently formed a committee to probe into the charges after the issue was highlighted in the Assembly.

Exactly four years ago, a team of scientists from the Central Institute of Cotton Research in Nagpur, UAS, Dharwad and National Research Centre for Plant Biotechnology (NRCPB) at Indian Agriculture Research Institute here announced the successful genetic transformation of an elite Indian cotton variety called Bikaneri Nerma.

The gene used for transformation was a truncated version of CRY1AC gene and not the same as Monsanto’s proprietary gene, which many private companies use to develop their own Bt cotton seeds. The difference between the two genes was explained in a scientific publication in the journal “Current Science” on December 25, 2007.

The gene was supplied by P Anand Kumar of NRCPB to the UAS for transformation and seed development. But seeds released by state seed corporations in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat were found to have the Monsanto gene rather than the indigenous one.

“We detected contamination in 2008. Seed production was stopped in 2009 and scientists were asked to clean up the contamination. We have eliminated all contamination now,” B M Khadi, dean at the UAS, who is at the eye of storm at the moment, said.

But how did the genetic contamination happened in the first place? Was it deliberate or sloppy experimentation? Datta refused to divulge the findings of the ICAR probe and Anand Kumar was not available for comment.

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India’s dream of low-cost indigenous Bt cotton endsKalyan Ray, New Delhi, Dec 29, DHNS:
Commercialisation of homegrown strain stopped after contamination
India’s dream of having a low-cost Bt-cotton from the public sector has come to a screeching halt with the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) closing the doors on Bikaneri Nerma – the first indigenous Bt cotton.

It  was found that commercial seeds of the home grown strain developed at the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) in Dharwad were contaminated with Monsanto’s proprietary Bt gene instead of the domestic one.

“This is end of the road for Bikaneri Nerma. We will develop new better quality material. Bikaneri Nerma is now a closed chapter for ICAR,” Swapan Datta, deputy director general in charge of crop science at ICAR told Deccan Herald.

Even though Bt cotton in India has turned out to be a success story with as many as 35 companies selling 780 bt cotton hybrids, all of them are private firms, which sell expensive seeds costing Rs 930 for every 450 gm packet of seeds.

Bikaneri Nerma, on the other hand, was a low-cost option with a price tag of Rs 200 for 2 kg and had the potential to ch a nge the landscape completely. “It is a sinking feeling, combined with anger and anguish. We have given the private industry a million reasons to rejoice,” said an ICAR scientist who did not wish to be identified.

While ICAR stopped commercialisation of the first and only home-grown Bt cotton following its own investigation, the Karnataka government recently formed a committee to probe into the charges after the issue was highlighted in the Assembly.

Exactly four years ago, a team of scientists from the Central Institute of Cotton Research in Nagpur, UAS, Dharwad and National Research Centre for Plant Biotechnology (NRCPB) at Indian Agriculture Research Institute here announced the successful genetic transformation of an elite Indian cotton variety called Bikaneri Nerma.

The gene used for transformation was a truncated version of CRY1AC gene and not the same as Monsanto’s proprietary gene, which many private companies use to develop their own Bt cotton seeds. The difference between the two genes was explained in a scientific publication in the journal “Current Science” on December 25, 2007.

The gene was supplied by P Anand Kumar of NRCPB to the UAS for transformation and seed development. But seeds released by state seed corporations in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat were found to have the Monsanto gene rather than the indigenous one.

“We detected contamination in 2008. Seed production was stopped in 2009 and scientists were asked to clean up the contamination. We have eliminated all contamination now,” B M Khadi, dean at the UAS, who is at the eye of storm at the moment, said.

But how did the genetic contamination happened in the first place? Was it deliberate or sloppy experimentation? Datta refused to divulge the findings of the ICAR probe and Anand Kumar was not available for comment.

Hyped ‘desi Bt’ cotton has Monsanto gene, govt stops production

Source:  http://www.indianexpress.com/news/hyped-desi-bt-cotton-has-monsanto-gene-govt-stops-production/893287/

India’s claim of having developed its own Bt cotton (genetically modified) variety has taken an embarrassing turn with an RTI inquiry by two scientists revealing how the University of Agriculture Sciences (UAS) at Dharwad went ahead — brushing aside all precautions — to produce an indigenous variety working on a gene originally patented by Monsanto.

Finding this out, in 2009, the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) had even decided to stop the sale of Bikaneri Narma Bt Cotton — touted as an “completely indigenous Bt variety” — and halt its sale in the domestic market. Bikaneri Narma was released for farmers as BN Bt by Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) in 2009. It was called an indigenous Bt “variety” — as distinct from the Monsanto hybrid where farmers have to buy fresh seeds each season. Farmers could re-use BN Bt for many years

Yesterday, at a special ICAR meeting, a decision was reportedly taken to stop production of Bn Bt. When contacted, ICAR’s DDG S K Dutta, who stopped commercial sale of Bn Bt in 2009, declined to comment.

Records obtained by scientists Mansoor and Surendra under RTI and accessed by The Indian Express, show that elements of Monsanto’s Cry1Ac gene was detected in the BN Bt varieties developed by UAS. A probe has been ordered by the Karnataka government and by the vice-chancellor of UAS.

It was in 2005 that UAS’s principal scientist I S Kategari had claimed to have successfully introduced the gene in Bikaneri Narma, claiming that it was the “truncated” Cry1Ac gene. Records show that at a meeting on May 21, 2008, ICAR deputy director-general P L Gautam said that the presence of elements of Monsanto’s gene wasn’t an issue and cleared its commercialisation. Incidentally, Ananda Kumar, of the New Delhi-based National Research Centre for Plant Biotechnology, had said that there could have been contamination with elements of the Monsanto gene but added that his tests had not found any presence of these elements.

Misconduct by Dharwad agriculture University in the name of Bt Cotton : inquiry initiated

In the name of Bt cotton production, spurious act of developing Bt cotton
Raghavendra Bhat, Kannada Prabha
Bangalore: A misconduct in the name of developing Bt Cotton, by University of Agriucltural Science, Dharwad came to the notice of Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR).  In the last eight years, as the Bt cotton seed prices were increasing, agriculture researchers, knowledgeable people/ scientists, progressive farmers, seed developers were fighting to reduce the the seed prices and royalty. UAS Dharwar has designed a seed development program.
University proposed to develop Bt cotton hybrid seeds which could be a better alternative to Monsanto’s Bt cotton to help farmers from high costs of seed. The responsibility was given to Principal Scientist of Dharwad Agriculture University and formerDirector of Central Institute of Cotton Research Dr. BM Khadi. Dr. I.S. Kategeri and Dr. Anandakumar were also involved.
The plan was to develop a cotton variety by back crossing Bikaner Nerma female plant with NHH 44 Bt along with central cotton research institute. When analysed Mon-531 event was found.
Four crores expendture: the variety developed by dharwad university was sponsored by a Maharashtra Seed Development Corporation  Mahavir (Mahabeej ?) at an expenditure of Rs.4 crores. seed production was taken up in large scale in farmers’ fields. Monsanto expressed serious opposition to this and said this is a false research and dismissed UAS, Dharwar claims. it also threatened to take matter to court.
Joined hands with monsanto? apart from this there is also a serious allegation appeared in this connection.  All these three sicentists have joined hands with monsanto and cooperated in delaying production in multi location. A CBI inquiry was demanded. Apart from that former secretary Basavaraj Hooratti discussed this in the assembly.
Box: in this connection, agriculture secretary Umesh Katti informed to Kannada Prabha that an inquiry committee under Chief Secretary is appointed. Former secretary Basavaraja Hooratti in assembly (vidhana parishath) mentioned about the issue and state govt’s action was informed. he said that misconduct in university will not be tolerated. Similarly he opined that as state government inquiry is on, central government’s inquiry is not necessary.

Now It’s official that Bt.cotton failed 12 million hectors in India

Now It’s official that Bt.cotton failed 12 million hectors in India

Nagpur , Dec.7, 2011
As per recent admission of Dr C.D. Mayee, President of Indian Society for Cotton Improvement who was instrumental in giving blanket permission for commercial trials of genetically modified (GM) Bt.cotton seed notoriously known as killer seed in part of cotton growing region of India where more than 2 lakhs cotton farmers committed suicides in last decade to US seed giant Monsanto Inc thatCotton yield in the country seems to be on a downswing in the last three years, as per official figure of ICAR, Bt.cotton yield per hectare hit a record 554 kg in 2007-08. Sinc
e then, it has been dropping, touching 486 kg/hectare in 2009-10 before rising to 496 kg/hectare last season. This season, too, the yield is expected to be drop down to significant low level this year because the Bt strains and hybrids, that account for nearly 95 per cent of the total area under cotton, are losing their strength but the Cotton research scientists have a different take on the drop in yield but fact is that area under cotton has touched a record 121.91 lakh hectares (lh) this year. When the yield hit a record 554 kg/hectare in 2007-08, the area under cotton was 94.14 lh and Scientists point out to Maharashtra as an example of more new areas coming un
der cotton. Dr. Mayee added.
“The problem with growing cotton in non-traditional dry land areas is that the productivity is low.
Some farmers in Maharashtra have taken to cotton farming without the requisite experience. It is one of the reasons for some committing suicide Since January, 704 farmers have reportedly committee suicide in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra,” said officials in Maharashtra Mantralaya
“Growing cotton in areas where it has never been sown is a problem since it could be rain-fed. This year, rainfall

has been erratic and it has affected cotton,” said the official.7

Cotton farmers shifting to Bollgard II that is supposed to be superior to Bollgard I pests, including sucking pests, leaf curl virus and jassids, are creating problems in cotton, resulting maximum use of pesticide and giving significant drop on production front .in last five years cultivation cost has jumped from Rs.5000/- hector has jumped to Rs.30,000/- hector in maharashtra and average yield and stable cost has caused huge economic losses to agrarian community in cotton growing areas and hence cotton afrmers suicides have been restarted ,Kishor Tiwari of Vidarbha Janandoan Samiti (VJAS) informed in press
release today.
‘The complete ban of killer seed Bt.cotton in rain fed areas of India is must and further permission of commercial trials any GM seed should be stopped immediately” Tiwari said.

The BT cotton suicide belt – thousands of cotton farmers in India are killing themselves in their fields

Columbia City Paper, USA

Trevor Aaronson

http://columbiacitypaper.com/?p=1141

10.11.2009

VIDARBHA REGION, India –

The reminders are still here as Gokal wipes tears from his face. There’s the white headscarf with gold trim, next to a pair of cracked and worn sandals. The rope is here, too, snaking along the ground next to a large mango tree, a perfect noose tied at its end.

Five days ago, Gokal’s father hanged himself from the mango tree. His name was Motiram Baban Landkar, and Gokal and his two brothers don’t know how old he was when he died. In this part of rural India, birthdays go unnoticed and age matters little. The three sons can agree only that their father was about as old as the mango tree, and he took his life on May 31 to escape a debt of about $850.

He is one of nearly 200,000 Indian farmers, many of them cotton growers, to commit suicide since 1997. In fact, suicide among farmers in India has become so prevalent that officials in New Delhi keep a tally. Hanging and consumption of poison are the common methods of death, and most farmer suicides have occurred in India’s cotton belt, which extends from Hyderabad north to Nagpur, at the geographical center of India, and east to the state of Gujarat.

Many in India blame a combination of climate change, globalization and the U.S. corporation Monsanto for pushing to suicide thousands of subsistence farmers.

“Ten years ago,” Gokal says, “farming was easy.”

Now it’s deadly, and with the worst drought conditions India has seen in decades, this year’s December cotton harvest could be one of the deadliest.

* * *

Kishor Tiwari works from a small, two-room office in Yavatmal, the largest city in an area of the country that has witnessed more farmer suicides than any other. Tiwari, a fast-talking former engineer, is attempting to document as many of those deaths as he can. As founder of the Vidharbha People’s Agitation Committee, Tiwari has made a full- time job of raising awareness of cotton farmers’ plight.

Kishor Tiwari has dedicated his life to raising awareness of farmer suicides in India.

On an afternoon in June, with the annual monsoon rains already two weeks late in what scientists believe is a symptom of climate change, Tiwari motions to one of his assistants. “This is the suicide man,” he says. The man hands Tiwari a white ledger. Inside, on dog-eared pages, there’s a line for every suicide: name, date, place of death.

Tiwari then points to a map next his desk. “We are here,” he says, placing his right index finger on the map. He then draws a large circle with the finger. “This is the cotton area,” he says. Tiwari looks back, making sure everyone is watching. He draws another large circle away from the first one. “This is the non-cotton area.” He pauses, leveraging the silence for effect. “The suicides,” he finishes, “are mainly in the cotton-crop area.”

Dressed in black pants and a white button-down shirt, Tiwari walks barefoot into the next room. “Come, come,” he says. There, he has a floor-to-ceiling chart illustrating the numbers of suicides his organization has confirmed in this area of Vidarbha from 2001 to 2008. The years and numbers are in Sanskrit, and Tiwari begins to read each aloud. “In 2001, 52 suicides,” he says, then rattles off the numbers in machine-gun procession, each number representing the suicides of the following year: “104, 148, 447, 445, 1,448, 1,246, 1,267.”

Tiwari believes St. Louis, Missouri-based agribusiness giant Monsanto is the primary reason for the suicides, and to understand why he believes this, it’s instructive to appreciate first how drastically the cotton-seed business has changed in India.

Cotton seed has historically been among farmers’ lowest expenses. During the harvest, cotton growers would cultivate crop seeds and save them for the following season. As a general practice, they also would swap seeds with neighboring farmers, ensuring through natural selection that subsequent generations of cotton seed would be best suited for the region. Although local cotton did not provide the same potential yields as cotton seed from the Americas, it had adapted to India’s unique climate – an intense monsoon season followed by months of drought.

Monsanto helped to abolish this practice. At the turn of the century, the company introduced a genetically modified cotton plant that produces bacteria known as Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a commonly used pesticide against bollworm. When Bt cotton seed first came to market nationwide in 2002 under the trademark Bollgard, a box recommended for one acre of farmland was 1,400 rupees, about $35, a substantial amount for a farmer who in a good year will earn a few hundred dollars to support his family. Although government-regulated prices have been halved to 750 rupees per box – a predatory pricing lawsuit filed by the state of Andhra Pradesh forced Monsanto and the federal government to lower the prices – the input costs of Bt cotton are still more than the average farmer can afford to spend out of pocket.

What’s more, unlike with traditional seeds, farmers aren’t able replant seeds harvested from the crop. Doing so not only would violate a farmer’s legal agreement with the seed company but would be impractical as well. Because Bt sold in India is only available in hybrid seeds, replanting the next generation of seeds is a genetic crapshoot. Hybrids genetically segregate with every generation, with only one-third of seeds showing the same genetic traits of the parent. While hybrids can offer yield benefits for farmers, they primarily offer Monsanto greater control of intellectual property through this genetic segregation. As a result, farmers must buy new seeds year after year.

Despite the high costs of Bt cotton and the problems associated with the seed, advertising campaigns and government promotion of Monsanto’s technology initially helped persuade Indian farmers to take out loans and buy the genetically modified cotton seed.

On a macro level, Bt cotton has been a success in India. Since its introduction, national cotton production has doubled. But on a micro level, when examined from farm to farm, Monsanto’s technology has clearly offered mixed results.

Because the genetically modified Bt trait is only readily available in hybrid seeds, the crop requires more water than traditional Indian seeds. Affluent farmers with irrigated fields can fully exploit the technology and profit from increased yields, and these farmers are success stories for Monsanto.

But still 60 percent of India’s 90 million farmers own less than two and a half acres of land, and for them, the situation is vastly different. Subsistence farmers own rain-fed lands whose success depends entirely on the generosity of the monsoon. During this current period of unpredictable rains and increasing drought, these farmers have, like their more affluent counterparts, adopted drought- intolerant Bt cotton, which has resulted in reports throughout the region of crop failure and disappointing yield levels. Although boxes of Bt cotton have a warning label that instructs farmers to use the seed only in irrigated fields, the warning is in English, which few farmers can read.

Now, only a few years after the introduction of genetically modified seeds, Bt cotton has become so universal, and so much more profitable for the seed companies that license Monsanto’s technology, it’s the only type of seed available to farmers at stores. Consequently, every year as Indians await the monsoon rains, farmers line up to sign loan paperwork. In less than a decade, cotton seed in India went from a negligible cost to one requiring a bank loan.

“Fifty percent of farmer expenses now come from the cost of the seed,” Tiwari, the activist, says.

Whereas previous generations of cotton farmers could recover from crop failure – they would face a year of hardship from reduced income but could find means to plant again the following year – India’s subsistence farmers today are playing a game of agrarian roulette. Here’s the familiar pattern: To purchase Bt cotton, the farmer must take out a seed loan from the State Bank of India. If the crop fails due to a poor monsoon – a noteworthy potential given Bt cotton’s design for use in irrigated fields – the farmer will not be able to pay back the loan and will be denied a second loan. The farmer then will turn to an unregulated private moneylender who charges usurious rates, sometimes as high as 100 percent. A second crop failure, or even an underperforming crop, can place the farmer in a hole so deep that many turn to suicide.

In fact, the number of farmer suicides in India spiked in 2006, and has remained steady since, following implementation of a government program to pay as much as 10,000 rupees in compensation to families affected by farmer suicide. Suddenly, indebted cotton growers were worth more as corpses than as patriarchs.

Gajanan Bhindarwa cradles cotton seeds containing Monsanto’s genetically modified Bt trait.

That’s what happened to Vithal Bhindarwa, whose six-acre cotton farm was near the two-lane highway that runs from Hyderabad to New Delhi. His crop failed in late 2008, and he owed 28,000 rupees to the State Bank of India and even more to a private moneylender. Bhindarwa’s wife and children did not know the debt existed, and one evening in December, the farmer stepped out of his two-room home and swallowed poison he had reserved for rats trolling in the soybean field. “We were told it would produce good results, the Bt cotton, so everybody took a loan,” says his son, 23-year-old Gajanan, now head of the family.

Today, according to one of Monsanto’s own studies, 95 percent of farmers in India have expenditures greater than income. These farmers are upside down on loans, but instead of walking away from farms as Americans have walked away from homes, thousands are hanging and poisoning themselves.

* * *

Sekhar Natarajan, Monsanto’s head of India operations, lives in Mumbai, about 425 miles west of the farmlands where these suicides are occurring, and oversees a business that generates more than $70 million in annual revenue from sales in the Indian heartland.

Sitting at a desk in his office, Natarajan bristles at the claims his company is somehow responsible for suicides among subsistence farmers.

“I like to start out by saying that, as an Indian, whenever I hear about the suicide of farmers, it pains me, because it’s a human life that we’re talking about,” Natarajan says. “Farmer suicide is a very painful subject, and it’s a subject that is important for India as a country to clearly understand. It’s not one single cause. A farmer commits suicide as a last resort, to keep up his honor and commitment which he’s unable to do.

“I would disagree with the fact that genetically modified seeds are the cause of suicide, because these suicides happen in non-cotton areas also,” he continues. “Cotton farmers are in fact benefiting from technology because we believe risk is reduced. A cotton farmer who does not use technology has a higher risk profile than a cotton farmer who uses technology, assuming the seeds are the same value. That being the case, we think we reduce risk. To that extent, we add positively to this whole debate about how much of a pressure is on farmers. This is a holistic subject, and I really think the statements directly linking us are unfounded in my opinion.”

Monsanto has funded three studies attempting to prove the company isn’t responsible for the suicides. Those studies linked farmer suicides to a variety of social ills, including alcoholism, gambling and the use of credit to finance weddings and dowries. One study, by the International Food Policy Research Institute, concluded farmer suicides had so many possible contributors in addition to Bt cotton that any conclusive links to a single contributor were impossible to form.

* * *

Despite the Monsanto-funded studies, it’s clear from the ground level that had India not moved its cotton industry to genetically modified seeds so quickly, and instead confined the technology to the larger, irrigated fields for which it was designed, the agrarian suicide crisis wouldn’t exist at the level it does today. Critics of Monsanto in India allege this imprudent agrarian policy is the result of government corruption and the U.S. company’s gaming of the system.

“If you can bribe someone in the regulatory agency, you get what you want,” says Suman Sahai, a geneticist in New Delhi and activist against seed patents.

“I’ve seen too many scientists start to speak against their mind and their conscience just for money from Monsanto,” says Vandana Shiva, a well-known environmental activist in India.

Sahai and Shiva can’t provide evidence to support their claims, and Monsanto officials are quick to brush off such charges, saying their business in India complies with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a U.S. law that prohibits bribery of foreign officials.

Even so, Monsanto has demonstrated tremendous skill at influencing public officials in India. Among the best examples is C.D. Mayee, a New Delhi scientist who was co-chair of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee when Monsanto sought approval for Bt cotton in 2001.

Mayee granted that approval in 2002, and four years later, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, an organization whose major funders include Monsanto, appointed Mayee to its board of directors. Mayee saw no conflict of interest in being paid to promote the same technology he was charged with regulating. “ISAAA is engaged in a noble mission globally and this is the first time an Indian has had the honor of being on its board,” Mayee told The Times of India at the time of his appointment.

Mayee voluntarily stepped down as India’s regulator of genetically modified agriculture in May. However, as a member of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Mayee remains an influential government official in India and still serves on ISAA’s board.

During a June interview in his New Delhi office, when asked if he regrets having approved Bt cotton given that a rural credit crisis and a rise in farmer suicides followed introduction of the technology, Mayee remains emphatic in his support of Monsanto’s technology.

“Let me find you something,” he says, rooting through his briefcase. Mayee hands over two papers he recently submitted to academic journals. Both examine how India has benefitted from the genetically modified seed. “Cotton production in India has doubled as a result of Bt technology,” he says. “Therefore, how can Bt cotton be responsible for suicides?”

Asked why he believes his opinion should be viewed credible when he sits on the board of an organization funded by Monsanto, Mayee abruptly ends the interview without explanation.

* * *

It was a Sunday morning when Motiram Baban Landkar hanged himself in Vidarbha’s Akola District. His three sons had all left the village. Shivlal and Shantaram had gone to the market, and Gokal attended a wedding.

Motiram had tea with his wife in the early daylight hours and said nothing of

Motiram Baban Landkar never told his sons that the family was in debt due to seed loans.

what he’d planned. He walked five minutes from the village to his farm, crushing the parched earth with every step. He tied the rope, first around a sturdy branch of the mango tree and then around his neck.

About an hour later, a neighboring farmer found him hanging there and called police. They cut down the body and left behind the rope, scarf and sandals.

“Every day we come here, since it happened,” says Motiram’s middle son, Gokal.

A few days after the suicide, Gokal and his brothers learned of the debts – first from a private moneylender, then from a bank official. They’d known money was tight; they just didn’t realize the family owed money. Their father handled all finances for the combined family of 22 people.

“If we went and earned money somewhere, we would hand him the money and he would take care of all the food and vegetables for the family,” Gokal says. “We had no right to ask daddy where he got his other money from, so we didn’t know about the debts.”

Inside their small home in the village, Gokal says he blames the high cost of seed for pushing his father to suicide. Had he not taken out seeds loan, Gokal says, the debt would not have existed.

Sitting next to Gokal are his two brothers, and napping on his lap is his 3-year-old daughter Lakshmi. When asked what’s next for his family now that his father is dead, Gokal buries his face in his hands. Lakshmi looks up from his lap, half-asleep.

“We have to survive,” he says. “But living without him is impossible.”

When the monsoon rains finally arrive in early July, one month late, farmers in Vidarbha are disappointed. The news gets worse in the following weeks. The government says rain levels are 29 percent below average this year, and halfway through monsoon season, 177 farming districts are declared drought zones.

Indian cotton farmers are expecting a deadly harvest.

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Research for this story was supported in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism